Update September 14, 2017: A new post on Ford's Self-Driven blog has cracked the mystery. The car was part of a collaboration between Ford and Virginia Tech Transport Institute aimed at developing ways for self-driving cars to communicate their future actions to pedestrians. Ford posted a video about the project, which we included above.
A "driverless car" caught the public's attention when it was spotted driving through the streets of a Washington, D.C. suburb, apparently roaming around on its own. It turns out, it was a test.
Driverless cars are now being actively tested on America's roadways. And there has been a lot of hand wringing about the impending age of driver-free vehicles. Who gets the blame in an accident? How do they handle moral judgments during crashes? How do people react to the cars that move around with no one inside? The last question is just what a group of scientists were trying to figure out last week when a local news site ARLnow.com reported the seemingly rogue vehicle and started digging in.
The empty grey minivan was patiently and competently navigating the streets of Arlington, Virginia. And if it were not for its lack of human presence, it likely would have garnered little attention, according to ARLnow.com. But the two empty front seats prompted pointing and questions, as captured in the ARLnow footage of the vehicle.
The site speculated that the car could be related to the testing of driverless car technology on the region's highways by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. But a university spokesperson declined to comment.
This perplexing story drew the eye of a local television news reporter, who traveled to Arlington to meet with the editor of ARLnow.com. With luck, when leaving the website's offices, the reporter and his team spotted the van and chased after it in a downpour. When they caught up to it at a red light, the van's driverless technology turned out to be a man dressed in an elaborate costume that resembled a car seat.
"Brother, who are you?" reporter Adam Tuss yelled through the window of the van at what appeared to be a car seat with legs and arms sticking out. "I'm with the news, dude!" The driver didn't respond and quickly sped off through a red light to escape him.
Further reporting drew out the truth of this wacky situation—it turns out, the car was connected to the university's driverless car testing, just not in the way most people thought.
The university was actually testing how people reacted to seeing a driverless vehicle, reports Megan Geuss of Ars Technica. In a statement, Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute says that the study aims to see whether additional signals on the outside of the vehicle might be needed to keep pedestrians and bikers safe. The university statement notes that the driver's costume was designed to make him less visible, but still able to drive safely.
There has been much concern over these empty vehicles on the road. In addition to reactions from pedestrians, they could increase traffic. It seems like a useful luxury: your car drives you to work or a restaurant then heads as far away it needs to find affordable parking. But a 2015 report from the tax and advisory service company KPMG estimated that by 2050 if empty self-driving vehicles are allowed on the streets, it could increase total driver mileage by 3 to 4 trillion miles, nearly doubling U.S. traffic, Matt McFarland reported for The Washington Post at the time.
As for the guy in the car-seat costume? This latest study's results will apparently become public once it's been completed. In the meantime, if you see any driverless cars around in the near future, check for hands.